The Broken Road

Chapter XXXVI

“The Little Less——”

A.E.W. Mason

THREE YEARS passed before Linforth returned on leave to England. He landed at Marseilles towards the end of September, travelled to his home, and a fortnight later came up from Sussex for a few days to London. It was the beginning of the autumn season. People were returning to town. Theatres were re-opening with new plays; and a fellow-officer, who had a couple of stalls for the first production of a comedy about which public curiosity was whetted, meeting Linforth in the hall of his club, suggested that they should go together.

“I shall be glad,” said Linforth. “I always go to the play with the keenest of pleasure. The tuning-up of the orchestra and the rising of the curtain are events to me. And, to be honest, I have never been to a first night before. Let us do the thing handsomely and dine together before we go. It will be my last excitement in London for another three or four years, I expect.”

The two young men dined together accordingly at one of the great restaurants. Linforth, fresh from the deep valleys of Chiltistan, was elated by the lights, the neighbourhood of people delicately dressed, and the subdued throb of music from muted violins.

“I am the little boy at the bright shop window,” he said with a laugh, while his eyes wandered round the room. “I look in through the glass from the pavement outside, and——”

His voice halted and stopped; and when he resumed he spoke without his former gaiety. Indeed, the change of note was more perceptible than the brief pause. His friend conjectured that the words which Linforth now used were not those which he had intended to speak a moment ago.

“——and,” he said slowly, “I wonder what sort of fairyland it is actually to live and breathe in?”

While he spoke, his eyes were seeking an answer to his question, and seeking it in one particular quarter. A few tables away, and behind Linforth’s friend and a little to his right, sat Violet Oliver. She was with a party of six or eight people, of whom Linforth took no note. He had eyes only for her. Bitterness had long since ceased to colour his thoughts of Violet Oliver. And though he had not forgotten, there was no longer any living pain in his memories. So much had intervened since he had walked with her in the rose-garden at Peshawur—so many new experiences, so much compulsion of hard endeavour. When his recollections went back to the rose-garden at Peshawur, as at rare times they would, he was only conscious at the worst that his life was rather dull when tested by the high aspirations of his youth. There was less music in it than he had thought to hear. Instead of swinging in a soldier’s march to the sound of drums and bugles down the road, it walked sedately. To use his own phrase, everything was—just not. There was no more in it than that. And indeed at the first it was almost an effort for him to realise that between him and this woman whom he now actually saw, after three years, there had once existed a bond of passion. But, as he continued to look, the memories took substance, and he began to wonder whether in her fairyland it was “just not,” too. She had what she had wanted—that was clear. A collar of pearls, fastened with a diamond bow, encircled her throat. A great diamond flashed upon her bosom. Was she satisfied? Did no memory of the short week during which she had longed to tread the road of fire and stones, the road of high endeavour, trouble her content?

Linforth was curious. She was not paying much heed to the talk about the table. She took no part in it, but sat with her head a little raised, her eyes dreamily fixed upon nothing in particular. But Linforth remembered with a smile that there was no inference to be drawn from that not unusual attitude of hers. It did not follow that she was bored or filled with discontent. She might simply be oblivious. A remark made about her by some forgotten person who had asked a question and received no answer came back to Linforth and called a smile to his face. “You might imagine that Violet Oliver is thinking of the angels. She is probably considering whether she should run upstairs and powder her nose.”

Linforth began to look for other signs; and it seemed to him that the world had gone well with her. She had a kind of settled look, almost a sleekness, as though anxiety never came near to her pillow. She had married, surely, and married well. The jewels she wore were evidence, and Linforth began to speculate which of the party was her husband. They were young people who were gathered at the table. In her liking for young people about her she had not changed. Of the men no one was noticeable, but Violet Oliver, as he remembered, would hardly have chosen a noticeable man. She would have chosen someone with great wealth and no ambitions, one who was young enough to ask nothing more from the world than Violet Oliver, who would not, in a word, trouble her with a career. She might have chosen anyone of her companions. And then her eyes travelled round the room and met his.

For a moment she gazed at him, not seeing him at all. In a moment or two consciousness came to her. Her brows went up in astonishment. Then she smiled and waved her hand to him across the room—gaily, without a trace of embarrassment, without even the colour rising to her cheeks. Thus might one greet a casual friend of yesterday. Linforth bethought him, with a sudden sting of bitterness which surprised him by its sharpness, of the postscript in the last of the few letters she had written to him. That letter was still vivid enough in his memories for him to be able to see the pages, to recognise the writing, and read the sentences.

“I shall always think of the little dreams we had together of our future, and regret that I couldn’t know them. That will always be in my mind. Remember that!”

How much of that postscript remained true, he wondered, after these three years. Very little, it seemed. Linforth fell to speculating, with an increasing interest, as to which of the men at her table she had mated with. Was it the tall youth with the commonplace good looks opposite to her? Linforth detected now a certain flashiness in his well grooming which he had not noticed before. Or was it the fat insignificant young man three seats away from her?

A rather gross young person, Linforth thought him—the offspring of some provincial tradesman who had retired with a fortune and made a gentleman of his son.

“Well, no doubt he has the dibs,” Linforth found himself saying with an unexpected irritation, as he contemplated the possible husband. And his friend broke in upon his thoughts.

“If you are going to eat any dinner, Linforth, it might be as well to begin; we shall have to go very shortly.”

Linforth fell to accordingly. His appetite was not impaired, he was happy to notice, but, on the whole, he wished he had not seen Violet Oliver. This was his last night in London. She might so easily have come to-morrow instead, when he would already have departed from the town. It was a pity.

He did not look towards her table any more, but the moment her party rose he was nevertheless aware of its movement. He was conscious that she passed through the restaurant towards the lobby at no great distance from himself. He was aware, though he did not raise his head, that she was looking at him.

Five minutes afterwards the waiter brought to him a folded piece of paper. He opened it and read:

“Dick, won’t you speak to me at all? I am waiting.—VIOLET.”

Linforth looked up at his friend.

“There is someone I must go and speak to,” he said. “I won’t be five minutes.”

He rose from the table and walked out of the restaurant. His heart was beating rather fast, but it was surely curiosity which produced that effect. Curiosity to know whether with her things were—“just not”, too. He passed across the hall and up the steps. On the top of the steps she was waiting for him. She had her cloak upon her shoulders, and in the background the gross young man waited for her without interposing—the very image of a docile husband.

“Dick,” she said quickly, as she held out her hand to him, “I did so want to talk to you. I have to rush off to a theatre. So I sent in for you. Why wouldn’t you speak to me?”

That he should have any reason to avoid her she seemed calmly and completely unconscious. And so unembarrassed was her manner that even with her voice in his ears and her face before him, delicate and pretty as of old, Dick almost believed that never had he spoken of love to her, and never had she answered him.

“You are married?” he asked.

Violet nodded her head. She did not, however, introduce her husband. She took no notice of him whatever. She did not mention her new name.

“And you?” she asked.

Linforth laughed rather harshly.


Perhaps the harshness of the laugh troubled her. Her forehead puckered. She dropped her eyes from his face.

“But you will,” she said in a low voice.

Linforth did not answer, and in a moment or two she raised her head again. The trouble had gone from her face. She smiled brightly.

“And the Road?” she asked. She had just remembered it. She had almost an air of triumph in remembering it. All these old memories were so dim. But at the awkward difficult moment, by an inspiration she had remembered the great long-cherished aim of Dick Linforth’s life. The Road! Dick wondered whether she remembered too that there had been a time when for a few days she had thought to have a share herself in the making of that road which was to leave India safe.

“It goes on,” he said quietly. “It has passed Kohara. It has passed the fort where Luffe died. But I beg your pardon. Luffe belongs to the past, too, very much to the past—more even than I do.”

Violet paid no heed to the sarcasm. She had not heard it. She was thinking of something else. It seemed that she had something to say, but found the utterance difficult. Once or twice she looked up at Dick Linforth and looked down again and played with the fringe of her cloak. In the background the docile husband moved restlessly.

“There’s a question I should like to ask,” she said quickly, and then stopped.

Linforth helped her out.

“Perhaps I can guess the question.”

“It’s about——” she began, and Linforth nodded his head.

“Shere Ali?” he said.

“Yes,” replied Violet.

Linforth hesitated, looking at his companion. How much should he tell her, he asked himself? The whole truth? If he did, would it trouble her? He wondered. He had no wish to hurt her. He began warily:

“After the campaign was over in Chiltistan I was sent after him.”

“Yes. I heard that before I left India,” she replied.

“I hunted him,” and it seemed to Linforth that she flinched. “There’s no other word, I am afraid. I hunted him—for months, from the borders of Tibet to the borders of Russia. In the end I caught him.”

“I heard that, too,” she said.

“I came up with him one morning, in a desert of stones. He was with three of his followers. The only three who had been loyal to him. They had camped as best they could under the shelter of a boulder. It was very cold. They had no coverings and little food. The place was as desolate as you could imagine—a wilderness of boulders and stones stretching away to the round of the sky, level as the palm of your hand, with a ragged tree growing up here and there. If we had not come up with them that day I think they would have died.”

He spoke with his eyes upon Violet, ready to modify his words at the first evidence of pain. She gave that evidence as he ended. She drew her cloak closer about her and shivered.

“What did he say?” she asked.

“To me? Nothing. We spoke only formally. All the way back to India we behaved as strangers. It was easier for both of us. I brought him down through Chiltistan and Kohara into India. I brought him down—along the Road which at Eton we had planned to carry on together. Down that road we came together—I the captor, he the prisoner.”

Again Violet flinched.

“And where is he now?” she asked in a low voice.

Suddenly Linforth turned round and looked down the steps, across the hall to the glass walls of the restaurant.

“Did he ever come here with you?” he asked. “Did he ever dine with you there amongst the lights and the merry-makers and the music?”

“Yes,” she answered.

Linforth laughed, and again there was a note of bitterness in the laughter.

“How long ago it seems! Shere Ali will dine here no more. He is in Burma. He was deported to Burma.”

He told her no more than that. There was no need that she should know that Shere Ali, broken-hearted, ruined and despairing, was drinking himself to death with the riffraff of Rangoon, or with such of it as would listen to his abuse of the white women and his slanders upon their honesty. The contrast between Shere Ali’s fate and the hopes with which he had set out was shocking enough. Yet even in his case so very little had turned the scale. Between the fulfilment of his hopes and the great failure what was there? If he had been sent to Ajmere instead of to England, if he and Linforth had not crossed the Meije to La Grave in Dauphiné, if a necklace of pearls he had offered had not been accepted—very likely at this very moment he might be reigning in Chiltistan, trusted and supported by the Indian Government, a helpful friend gratefully recognised. To Linforth’s thinking it was only “just not” with Shere Ali, too.

Linforth saw his companion coming towards him from the restaurant. He held out his hand.

“I have got to go,” he said.

“I too,” replied Violet. But she detained him. “I want to tell you,” she said hurriedly. “Long ago—in Peshawur—do you remember? I told you there was someone else—a better mate for you than I was. I meant it, Dick, but you wouldn’t listen. There is still the someone else. I am going to tell you her name. She has never said a word to me—but—but I am sure. It may sound mean of me to give her away—but I am not really doing that. I should be very happy, Dick, if it were possible. It’s Phyllis Casson. She has never married. She is living with her father at Camberley.” And before he could answer she had hurried away.

But Linforth was to see her again that night. For when he had taken his seat in the stalls of the theatre he saw her and her husband in a box. He gathered from the remarks of those about him that her jewels were a regular feature upon the first nights of new plays. He looked at her now and then during the intervals of the acts. A few people entered her box and spoke to her for a little while. Linforth conjectured that she had dropped a little out of the world in which he had known her. Yet she was contented. On the whole that seemed certain. She was satisfied with her life. To attend the first productions of plays, to sit in the restaurants, to hear her jewels remarked upon—her life had narrowed sleekly down to that, and she was content. But there had been other possibilities for Violet Oliver.

Linforth walked back from the theatre to his club. He looked into a room and saw an old gentleman dozing alone amongst his newspapers.

“I suppose I shall come to that,” he said grimly. “It doesn’t look over cheerful as a way of spending the evening of one’s days,” and he was suddenly seized with the temptation to go home and take the first train in the morning for Camberley. He turned the plan over in his mind for a moment, and then swung away from it in self-disgust. He retained a general reverence for women, and to seek marriage without bringing love to light him in the search was not within his capacity.

“That wouldn’t be fair,” he said to himself—“even if Violet’s tale were true.” For with his reverence he had retained his modesty. The next morning he took the train into Sussex instead, and was welcomed by Sybil Linforth to the house under the Downs. In the warmth of that welcome, at all events, there was nothing that was “just not.”


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